Sunday, July 26, 2009

An Apostle's Thoughts (on the Lost Tribes, etc.)

Sorry for keeping you waiting...I know you've been on the edge of your seat, but I've been out of the house a lot in the last two months, which makes regular blogging hard. I should begin by saying that I always used to make fun of "that seminary teacher"--the one you always hear about who teaches false/questionable doctrine as gospel truth. But after reading some of the old books written by general authorities of the church, I at least understand how those individuals came to teach in the way that they do.

For instance--one of the seminary teacher myths I am accustomed to mock is the notion that the ten lost tribes were in hiding under the polar ice caps. But consider this quote from (then) apostle Joseph Fielding Smith, given in 1952: "You know, a lot of people have an idea that these tribes that are lost are not lost at all, they are just coming in among us all the time. They are not coming in among us all the time. We are gathering scattered Israel, but those tribes have not come yet. They will come when the Lord gets ready. You know, they are building a highway up here through Canada to Alaska. I do not know just what they are doing it for--presumably to fight the Japanese. This is only a thought; don't go away and say I state it as a fact--I have just wondered if they are not building that road to fulfill the promise the Lord made, as a highway for those lost people to eventually use when they come to the children of Ephraim? The Lord does a lot of wonderful things in a mysterious way" (The Signs of the Times, Deseret News Press, 44-45).

I don't have too much to say about this quote except that I understand how someone could attribute more authority to this opinion than even Elder Smith felt it deserved; after all, he later became the prophet and the book's Foreword states that "In these discussions speculation and uncertain conclusions I have tried to avoid and merely present the facts as they have been predicted by the seers and as we see them unfolding each day before our eyes" (vi). Statements like that in books like this are the reason why, since the 1960s or so (legendarily prompted by the publication of Bruce R. McConkie's Mormon Doctrine, written when he was one of the seven presidents of the Seventy in 1958, but before he had even been ordained a high priest!), all books written by General Authorities of the church come with disclaimers in the front (this one from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland's Christ and the New Covenant: "Lastly, this book is not a product of the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and is not a doctrinal declaration by or for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I alone am responsible for the publication of this work, and I alone am accountable for any errors and limitations it may contain. I can only hope these are relatively few and forgivable." Perhaps most tellingly, he signs this prefacing statement "Jeffrey R. Holland" without any reference to his position as an apostle.

The point, at least from my perspective, is that we should be careful in claiming certainty about any doctrine not found in the scriptures or above the signature of the First Presidency. But that doesn't mean that we can't enjoy and be edified by the opinions of various General Authorities. Just for fun, then, here's another one from Joseph Fielding Smith's book on The Signs of the Times:

"I will read from the 18th chapter of Isaiah because this has to do with this latter-day work. I think I will present it all. The way it begins in the King James Version is: 'Woe to the land shadowing with wings, which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia.' This is a mistranslation. In the Catholic Bible it reads: 'Ah, land of the whirring of wings, beyond the rivers of Cush,' and in Smith and Godspeed's translation it reads: 'Ah! Land of the buzzing of wings, which lies beyond the rivers of Ethiopia.' The chapter clearly shows that no woe was intended, but rather a greeting, as indicated in these other translations. A correct translation would be, 'Hail to the land in the shape of wings.' Now, do you know of any land in the shape of wings? Think of your map. About twenty-five years ago (which would have been 1927) one of the current magazines printed on the cover the American continents in the shape of wings, with the body of the bird between. I have always regretted that I did not preserve this magazine. Does not this hemisphere take the shape of wings; the spread out wings of a bird?" (51)

Quick break for a picture--you can decide for yourself if the Western Hemisphere looks like a bird (I've rotated it, which you may or may not think helps):

"Now to continue the reading:

'Hail to the land shadowing with wings, which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia.

'That sendeth ambassadors by the sea, even in vessels of bulrushes'--and the word 'bulrushes' is also wrong. The meaning is vessels of great speed. 'That sendeth ambassadors by the sea, even in vessels of bulrushes upon the waters, saying, Go, ye swift messengers, to a nation scattered and peeled, to a people terrible from their beginning hitherto; a nation meted out and trodden down, whose land the rivers have spoiled!'

Do you know of any land like that? Terrible in the beginning and later meted out and scattered, peeled and a curse upon the land? That land is Palestine." (51-52)

I hope you enjoyed these opinions of (then) Elder Smith as much as I did!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Pilgrimage Part Three: Shrines

Almost any site of religious significance in the Holy Land is covered by a shrine--which is sort of depressing if you're looking for a view of Calvary or some other locale as it might have appeared 2000 years ago. Not so inspiring or faith promoting (for me) to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or similar sites, but they are fascinating as human artifacts. Here are some of the sights:

As you walk the via dolorosa, following Christ's path from Gethsemane to Gologtha, there are 14 stations of the cross--places where significant events such as the interrogation of Jesus, his presentation to Pilate, etc. took place. One of my favorites is a spot where Christ is said to have staggered under the weight of the cross and reached out his left hand to steady himself on the wall. His touch--or at least the combined touches of everyone who followed--has left an imprint in the wall:

Once you get into the church that covers the ground where Christ is supposed to have been crucified and buried, you can see that the space is rather jealously guarded by at least 10 different sects--the Ethiopian church, the Armenian church, the Greek Orthodox, the Russian Orthodox, the Roman Catholic... everyone owns a portion of the building. The first sight you see, as you enter the door is a slab of stone said to be the one on which Christ's body laid in the tomb. It was surrounded by worshipers on their knees who kissed it, rubbed clothing/items of personal significance on it, and pressed their foreheads to it. Above the stone itself are lamps and incense--ubiquitous decorations in these shrines.

Our tour guide was good, by which I mean primarily that he had access to many parts of the church--he led us down to an archaeological excavation beneath the church itself which demonstrated that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was not merely a spot designated by Maria (Constantine's mom) as the site of the crucifixion; in that space, there was a second century (100-199 AD) painting of a pilgrim boat with words that say something like "We have arrived at the place of His death." So at the very least, the church is built on a site that second century Christians believed to be authentic. Here's a picture of the boat:

The other major shrine we visited was the church in Bethlehem supposedly built over the cave in which Christ was born. Whereas I have some degree of confidence that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built on the spot where Jesus Christ died and was buried, I have little to no confidence that this church is anything special--there are literally hundreds of caves all around Bethlehem, and Christ could have been born in almost any of them. In any case, if you go to the church, you'll find a marble shrine undergound; inside the shrine is a hollow with liquid in it that worshipers would take and press to their lips, foreheads, etc. I can't tell you what the liquid is--I didn't partake.

Some of the artwork in the Bethelehem church (love that manly baby!):